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New Clause 2 - Mode of trial on indictment (no. 2)

Terrorism (Northern Ireland) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:45 am on 8th November 2005.

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‘(1)Section 75 of the Terrorism 2000 Act (mode of trial on indictment) shall be amended as follows.

(2)After subsection (1), insert—

“(1A)The court shall consist of three judges of the Crown Court.”.’.

[Lorely Burt.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Lorely Burt Lorely Burt Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland), Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The new clause would amend the way that the Diplock court system runs in Northern Ireland. Everyone knows the history of why single judges currently sit as both judge and jury in some cases. The Liberal Democrats are completely committed to the jury system of trial. We have fought against Government moves to infringe on that right during the passage of various criminal justice Acts in the past eight years.

We had the option to table an amendment that would simply have repealed section 76 of the Terrorism Act 2000, but we were aware that that might not gain a great deal of consensus in Committee. We have therefore taken up the highly reasonable suggestion made by Lord Carlile in his last report on the operation of part 7 of the 2000 Act that three judges of the Crown court should sit in such trials, rather than one. It is fair to recognise Lord Carlile’s assessment that Northern Ireland judges apply rigorous standards to the quality of evidence in non-jury trials, but in making the suggestion he stated that a three-judge court would command greater confidence in one part of the community, without diminishing confidence, rationally, elsewhere.

It is vital that we try to move towards a more normal system of trial for scheduled offences in Northern Ireland. Lord Carlile’s suggestion is very sensible. I agree with him that such a move would help to secure greater confidence in how the criminal justice system operates in scheduled-offence trials in Northern Ireland. The Government should seriously consider how best to move the situation forward.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

Obviously, we have considered the option ourselves and taken an interest in it. I am not quite sure how the three-judge court would work. Would they have to be unanimous in their verdict or would a majority verdict suffice?

Photo of Lorely Burt Lorely Burt Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland), Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

I am not sufficiently familiar with what Lord Carlile said to be able to give the correct answer. Rather than pontificate, I will go away and get the right answer.

Photo of Mike Hall Mike Hall Labour, Weaver Vale

What is your view on it—not Lord Carlile’s?

Photo of Lorely Burt Lorely Burt Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland), Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

My personal view is that they should be unanimous.

Given the suggestions from the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, there seems to be a mood in Committee that we should not carry on with the current situation. I am hopeful that the Government will take away these helpful ideas and come back on Report with measures to improve the way that trials are conducted.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

As I said in my intervention on the hon. Lady, we have some sympathy with her objectives, in the sense that her amendment is an attempt to move towards normalisation, and one judge sitting alone cannot be considered to be normal, but we have some concerns about how the system would work.

The intervention was not intended to be awkward; it is important to establish how the system would work. Would the court be similar to the Court of Appeal, where there can be a majority verdict, or would the verdict have to be unanimous? Would there be a problem—some hon. Members might say that we already have this problem, although I do not think so—if one of the three judges had Unionist tendencies and one had nationalist tendencies? Where would the third one come from? I foresee some difficulties with that.

The Minister will probably give a fuller explanation, but the backstop to the present system is the automatic right of appeal, which does not exist in the ordinary court system in Great Britain, where permission to appeal must be obtained. We do not have a principled objection to the Liberal Democrats’ proposal, but we are concerned about how it would work in practice.

Photo of Lorely Burt Lorely Burt Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland), Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

The point about three judges and one having nationalist tendencies and another having other tendencies would negate the whole ethos of the system in which judges, by virtue of the fact that they are judges, should be independent. We are in no way criticising the existing judicial system in which judges are above reproach and independent, but if there were   three judges, the quality of their decisions would give additional confidence to all sectors of the community; they would not be representative of different sectors of the community.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

I understand the argument and accept what the hon. Lady says. I was about to wind up by saying that when the Minister responds to the hon. Lady’s reasonable points he could perhaps comment on those that I have raised.

Photo of Shaun Woodward Shaun Woodward Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

The hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) raises important issues. She asked whether it would be appropriate now to change the Diplock system to one involving three judges—the system in the Republic—and, critically, what system should be in place in the longer term. The hon. Member for Tewkesbury asked how we should deal with jury intimidation in Northern Ireland in the longer term. That is relevant because the Bill could fall in 18 months or we may have to use the safety net for 12 months after that, but the Government would still need to confront the issue of how to deal with trials, which regrettably may still involve a degree of jury intimidation. The new clause is important.

The questions raised by the hon. Member for Tewkesbury are also important and I am sure that the whole Committee believes that it is right and appropriate that the Government find a sensible, considered and measured way forward in the handling of jury trials and dealing with intimidation. Realistically, even if we can achieve our goal of security normalisation in the short term, it is likely that we would still have to deal with that in the environment that follows. It is appropriate to look briefly at the issues.

New clause 2 would amend the Terrorism Act 2000 to provide that Diplock courts would consist of three Crown court judges. In her comments, the hon. Member for Solihull referred to observations by Lord Carlile. I pay tribute to him, but add that he has not been entirely consistent on the issue. He recommended three judges, but he also said that that was a decision not for him but for the Government. We know that when he feels strongly about an issue he is more than up to telling us that we should repeal something. He also said in his report as recently as 2004 that

“the present single judge courts continue to offer a high standard of justice: there is no evidence of any deficit in the quality of single-judge courts.”

In this instance we have an “on one hand” and an “on the other hand” and, perhaps significantly, he said that it is up to the Government to make a decision. For that reason, our decision at the moment is to maintain the present system. I will explain why.

One issue as well as fairness that it is appropriate to consider in any judicial system is cost to the taxpayer. Although it should never be put before fairness, it is none the less right to look at the cost of the criminal justice system. Lord Carlile himself acknowledges that there would be resource and training implications if we were to move to the three-judge system. In fact, in his 2003 report, he estimated that 10 additional judges would be required to produce the same criminal justice   system. Those judges would have to be recruited and trained, and accommodation would have to be provided for them. If necessary—of course we would do this if we were to move to that system—steps would have to be taken to protect their security. That would have significant financial implications.

In addition, three-judge courts could also create case management problems. Those involved in court administration would need to ensure that the three judges allocated were available for all stages of a trial, which could cause delays in the criminal justice system. We are concerned about delays in Northern Ireland anyway and are taking steps to improve the situation. It would be unfortunate if, in the hope of improving the criminal justice system, we created a by-product in the form of considerable delays. We are also concerned that there could be unwelcome speculation about the verdicts and the individual views of judges involved in such cases. It is not clear to me that that would increase confidence in any post-Diplock system.

Of course, none of those concerns is insurmountable. However, I am concerned to ensure that we do not change a system that fundamentally works. Lord Carlile himself thinks that it works pretty effectively. Having said that, we are conscious that if we achieve the normalisation that we want to achieve within the time scale, there will unquestionably be problems in the future, as a legacy of the troubles in Northern Ireland, with regard to jury trials and the risk of intimidation. It will be necessary for the Government to introduce proposals to set out what should succeed the Diplock arrangements.

I gave the House an undertaking on Second Reading and I will give it again: the Government will want to introduce for consideration by the House proposals relating to what an appropriate future system should be in Northern Ireland. However, I want to put on the record our firm view that, even though we will achieve, as we hope, the enabling environment and security normalisation, it is realistic to assume that, regrettably, intimidation will remain a serious problem that will have to be confronted in trials. We will need to find a successor to Diplock.

One of the possible considerations might be the three-judge system—the sort of system offered in the Republic—for certain kinds of trials, where jury intimidation could be a problem. However, at the moment, we have not reached a settled view. In the spirit of the way in which we have tried to proceed on bringing resolution to the problems of Northern Ireland, we certainly want to involve cross-party consensus, if that is possible, since that is the most likely way in which we will produce the best criminal justice system for people in Northern Ireland. When we have firmer proposals, we intend to consult on them with hon. Members on both sides of the House. If possible, we might even consider pre-legislative scrutiny. That in itself is not a guarantee. What I will guarantee is that there is a spirit of wanting to consult wherever we can so that we introduce proposals that are bought into by all sections of all communities in Northern Ireland and by all political parties.

Photo of Lorely Burt Lorely Burt Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland), Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland) 12:00 pm, 8th November 2005

I thank the Minister for his full and informative answer. We would appreciate the opportunity to return to this matter on Report. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule agreed to.

Question proposed, That the Chairman do report the Bill to the House.

Photo of Alasdair McDonnell Alasdair McDonnell Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I want to put on record my position regarding the Bill. We do not seek to amend it, but we oppose it because the time for this legislation has passed. It should be allowed to lapse on 18 February. Normality is gradually returning to Northern Ireland and, to some extent, the Bill indicates a delay in the acceptance of that return to normality.

The history of emergency legislation in Northern Ireland is, to be honest, a sorry one. It is perhaps a history to which we should pay attention today and tomorrow because there are lessons to be learned from mistakes made during the past 30 years. I am thinking of the debate on the 90-day detention period that will take place tomorrow. Before this Bill, we had the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1973 and before that the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act (Northern Ireland) 1922. During that time, there was considerable abuse of the powers incurred by those Acts.

The security powers have time and again abused the power vested in them, and in turn that alienated a whole community. Stop-and-search powers were used systematically to harass young people, particularly young men. In the 1970s, virtually every young male in a nationalist area ended up being lifted and pressed for information. Those who were not guilty and who were responsible for nothing were often pressed into making confessions or becoming informers, thereby compromising them in their communities. I know many parents who never left their teenage sons alone at home at night for fear that they might be taken away. Often, such young men got a beating. It was sometimes claimed by the authorities that they beat themselves up, which was quite amazing.

With seven-day detention it was possible to get young men and women to confess to much of what the police required them to confess to, and quite often we had miscarriages of justice. I do not want to go into a long list, but there were some significant cases in this country.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Minister (Defence)

Will the hon. Gentleman outline for the benefit of the Committee any representations that constituents have made to him during the past two or three years about any way in which they had been adversely impacted by the implementation of the provisions?

Photo of Alasdair McDonnell Alasdair McDonnell Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I have had representations, though not perhaps in the past couple of years. All the hon. Gentleman’s remarks do is suggest that the time for the Bill has passed because it is no longer relevant.

There were cases in this country, such as the Birmingham Six, the Maguire Seven and the Guildford Four. All were subsequently released, charges were reversed and significant embarrassment was caused to the Government. Justice was degraded by the Diplock courts, which had no jury and only one judge. Again and again the legitimacy of their judgments was called into question by the use of unreliable informer evidence and mass trials, which led to unjust outcomes. All of that, and the failure of the judiciary to tell it exactly as it was in cases such as the Widgery tribunal and the appeals of the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six, served only to discredit the law in the eyes of the nationalist community.

The result was—this is the lesson we must learn today and tomorrow—that such abuse of justice and maladministration plays right into the hands of those who care nothing for the law and care only about bringing chaos on to the streets. If we get the law wrong, we make an ass of the law and play into the hands of the very people we want to hold to account. Time and again, the people we were trying to hold to account scored one propaganda coup after another as even the most obviously guilty were able to garner sympathy when prosecuted in no-jury courts. Quite often, because of the malfunction of the law, they were able to walk away. That is the bitter legacy of emergency law in Northern Ireland.

The emergency law undermined the real, honest rule of law—the very law it was meant to protect—and, even more fundamentally, undermined the safety of the public, which we are meant to guarantee. That is the legacy. It is one that the Government should heed before they rush in on another front tomorrow, when they attempt to introduce three months’ detention before trial and a whole raft of draconian measures that will serve only to alienate rather than to create security.

That is why I, on behalf of the Social Democratic and Labour party, declare this simple position: we want to see, as quickly as possible, the end of the Diplock courts, a return to jury trial and the restoration of the principles of law that protect us all. We believe that that time is coming. We compliment the Government on the effort that they have made to bring about peace, but we must recognise that peace by bringing in normal laws as quickly as possible. That is why we oppose extending the law beyond February 2006.

Photo of Shaun Woodward Shaun Woodward Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

I am sorry that I have to disagree with the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Dr. McDonnell). There are few matters in Northern Ireland that he and I disagree about in practical terms and, although I regret that he says he will have to vote against the Bill, I suspect that our disagreement is about shades of optimism rather than anything else.

We fervently wish that we did not have to renew the legislation. Our ambition would be to have achieved the enabling environment in which security normalisation made it possible for us to stand here today and say, “We believe that the security of the people in Northern Ireland is no different from the security of people elsewhere in the United Kingdom”.   However, the instances given this morning by the hon. Member for Lagan Valley of the disruption caused at the racecourse last Saturday and at the Hillsborough oyster festival in the summer, the activities of dissidence, the feuding that took place throughout the summer and the events of Whiterock and other parades all sadly evince the fact that, although the situation is dramatically better than it was in the past—no police officer or prison officer has been murdered in several years and attacks on individuals and intimidation are still declining dramatically—it is still not at a level that would enable us to say there was security normalisation. For that reason, although I firmly share the goal that he and every other member of the Committee has for a time of calm, security and stability, we do not feel that we have attained it. It is our hope and our goal, but we are not there yet.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Minister (Defence)

In addition to the incidents that the Minister outlines, is not it the case that just last night in Strabane a colleague of the hon. Member for Belfast, South was the subject of a serious attack on his home and his person? That gives us an example of the need for this type of legislation.

Mr. Woodwardrose—

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

Order. Perhaps it might be an opportune moment to remind the Committee that this is not a Second Reading debate. Remarks should be kept to a minimum so that the Committee can report the Bill to the House.

Photo of Shaun Woodward Shaun Woodward Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

As always, Lady Winterton, your exacting chairmanship reminds us of the need to be called to appropriate order.

As the hon. Gentleman raises the important issue of a security incident last night, it may be appropriate to add that we take that incident seriously and are waiting for more details. Of course we condemn it. None the less, it adds to the reasons why, regrettably, we cannot yet say that there is security normalisation and that we do not need the special provisions for Northern Ireland. However, as I said, the difference between the hon. Member for Belfast, South and myself is one of shades of optimism rather than anything else. I know that he wants security and normalisation in Northern Ireland. Our judgment is that we are not yet there and, unfortunately, cannot do away with the important and specific provisions in the Bill.

I thank you very much for your chairmanship, Lady Winterton, and for the indulgence that you have shown us, even allowing the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire to make a—I am tempted to say—crude attempt to bring to the Committee discussions with which he wishes to entertain the House.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

To correct the Minister, I mentioned another Bill to pray in aid my understanding of what he was attempting to explain with regard to this Bill. I hope that I did not deviate in any way from the specific focus of this Bill.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

If you had, I would have done something about it.

Photo of Shaun Woodward Shaun Woodward Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office) 12:15 pm, 8th November 2005

Perhaps we can discuss deviation and repetition another time.

The debate has been an important opportunity through your chairmanship, Lady Winterton, to touch on some important issues. I thank hon. Members on both sides of the Committee for the highly constructive spirit in which they approached the Bill. That allowed us to move comprehensively but speedily through it. The fact that we could scrutinise a major, albeit short, Bill at such speed and arrive at such significant consensus on major issues is a mark of the progress that has been made in Northern Ireland.

I thank hon. Members for their probing amendments on such issues as Diplock courts. We shall have to return to those issues, and the Government believe it quite right that they have been raised. I undertook to write to hon. Members who raised specific issues that I was unable to answer this morning. My officials will ensure that Members receive the adequate answers that they should receive.

I thank you again, Lady Winterton, for your chairmanship. I thank the Committee staff, the officials and the police who ensured that we were able to expedite our proceedings so well this morning.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

I echo what the Minister has said. This morning’s debate has been constructive. There are important issues that we must discuss. It is easy to sit in England, to see Northern Ireland as a far-away place and to pass legislation that affects them and not us. It is important that we do not pass legislation without considering the details closely. I hope that we have done that.

Several amendments have been probing amendments, but they have raised important issues about the way in which Northern Ireland is run. Whenever I have been there, I have found that one of the many desires of the Province is for normality. We are not there yet, for the reasons that the Minister and others have outlined and repeated.

I look forward to the next stage of the Bill. It is with great regret that we must consider it, but consider it we must. I hope that we can continue this constructive dialogue on future Bills. I should not wish to risk being ruled out of order when I suggest that the Government ought to continue to enable constructive dialogue. The Minister understands the legislation to which I refer. I do not think I can say any more without being ruled out of order.

May I thank you, Lady Winterton, for your chairmanship, which I have found to be firm but in the right spirit? May I thank also the Minister for his sympathetic treatment of the amendments that we tabled? I look forward to receiving his detailed explanations of the situations to which we referred, and I thank him for the way in which he has dealt with the debate. He has been accommodating while putting forward the Government’s principles and priorities.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

May I express my gratitude to you, Lady Winterton, for keeping us in order and for underlining the fact that I was in order during all my   observations? I echo the points made by the hon. Gentleman, who rightly pointed out the benefit of pre-legislative scrutiny, something that in fairness the Minister highlighted in an earlier debate in relation to comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull. Pre-legislative scrutiny is unquestionably an effective means of easing the passage of legislation through Committee, because it enables us to iron out various differences that can be resolved before they become matters of confrontation in Committee.

May I also highlight the point already made about the Liberal Democrats looking forward to Report? There are two unresolved matters, which we think are important; specifically, Diplock courts and their construction; and repealing section 108. We hope that we will be able to secure some debate about those two matters on Report. We would be inclined to divide the House if necessary. I stress to the Minister that the objective is not to try to score points against the Government. We have a difference of view, which we would like to flag up to another place to inform the debate there.

In conclusion, in our more heated exchange earlier I sought to highlight a genuine inconsistency in how the Government seek to deal with terrorist issues in Northern Ireland and how they seek to address international terrorism in the United Kingdom as a whole. I believe that those differences are salient, because the Government have rightly taken credit for a considerable improvement in circumstances in Northern Ireland. I believe that that has been achieved by taking an approach to the problems of terrorism in Northern Ireland radically different to that proposed for international terrorism.

In that spirit, while thanking you once again for your sage counsel as Chairman, Lady Winterton, I encourage the Minister to reflect on the points that have been made. He may be constructive in using some of the good practices used here in this Bill to replace some of the bad practices proposed to the House in debates about terrorism tomorrow and at other times.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Minister (Defence)

I add the thanks of my colleague and myself to you for chairing the debate today, Lady Winterton.

The legislation is not desirable, but is none the less essential. The way the Minister conducted the discussion and guided us was helpful, as was your chairmanship, Lady Winterton, which I look forward to serving under in the future. My colleagues who drew Thursday rather than Tuesday are particularly grateful.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

Before I put the Question, I would like to say how much I appreciate the way the Committee has conducted itself this morning, in the finest tradition of Parliament, and, on your behalf, to thank the Clerks and their Department for all the hard work that they put in before we even get here. I am grateful to the Clerk also because it is some eight years since I sat up here. I think that I have retaken my test this morning; I might not now have ‘L’, but I may have ‘P’ for probation. I hope that I have leapt that hurdle. With grateful thanks to all members of the Committee and to the staff, I shall put the Question.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill to be reported, without amendment.

Committee rose at twenty-three minutes past Twelve o’clock.